Brain Food

Video games and comic books were invented decades apart, but they seem like they were made for each other. There are plenty of decent video game adaptations of comics, including last year’s stellar version of The Walking Dead.

Comic adaptations of video games, however, have proven a harder nut to crack. Dark Horse Comics has decided to give it another solid whack with The Last of Us: American Dreams, a graphic novel written by the game’s creative director Neil Druckman and drawn by indie darling Faith Erin Hicks.

The Last of Us came out earlier in 2013 to almost universal critical acclaim. Set in what’s essentially a zombie apocalypse, most agreed that the mix of stealth and action gameplay was fun enough. But what set The Last of Us apart was its storytelling, following a handful of survivors who are forced to make tough, sometimes unthinkable decisions in order to keep on living.

For most of the game you play as Joel, a gruff middle-aged man looking after young teenager Ellie. The comic, however, takes place before the two meet, focusing on Ellie sans Joel.

Ellie lives in one of the few quarantine zones left in the U.S. Though most buildings are in disrepair, the large compound resembles a police state. Armed guards in riot gear patrol the streets, and there’s talk of a resistance group: the Fireflies.

Though most of the world’s population is decimated and fungus-infected zombies roam the earth, Ellie still faces some of the same problems of any girl her age. Transferred to a military training center at the age of 13, Ellie has to fend off bullies and figure out a way to make friends.

Danger finds Ellie in the form of gunfire and the gnashing of infected teeth, but the crux of the story relies on her relationship with her new friend. Only three years Ellie’s senior, the cynical and wizened Riley represents the grim future Ellie has to look forward to. Likewise, it’s easy to see that Riley takes a shine to Ellie in part because she’s a reminder of how things used to be.

The duo’s budding friendship is believable and recognizable, even given their surroundings. Ellie looks up to Riley, but she’s not a naive puppy dog. Riley is a hardened pessimist, but there are real emotions behind her motivations. There are a million different kinds of the undead out there, but any zombie fan can tell you that the human element is the most important, and that’s the aspect that American Dreams has nailed down.

Hicks, known for her young adult graphic novel Friends with Boys, is an unorthodox but inspired choice to illustrate this prequel. Given her proven knack for relatable adolescent characters, it’s no surprise to see her credited as co-writer along with Druckman.

The video game’s graphical style is gritty and realistic, suiting the bleak setting, but the world of the comic is a bit more cartoony. Hicks’ characters have round faces and big, expressive eyes. Fight scenes have an air of manga to them, with action lines behind the character briefly taking the place of backgrounds.

Though out of step with the original material, the art style works thematically. Ellie is younger, still holding on to her innocence. The story has as much to do with Ellie figuring out who she is as it does with her misadventures with rebels and zombies.

Since the book is a prequel, we know that Ellie survives to live the events of the game. The stakes aren’t too high, so American Dreams works as more of a character piece. People who have played through The Last of Us will wait for an event in Ellie’s past mentioned in the final minutes of the game, but it never comes. That pivotal moment looks like it will be explored in an upcoming downloadable video game content that acts as a prequel to the game and a sequel to this comic.

What we’re left with is a great graphic novel with a narrow audience. Anyone who’s played The Last of Us or is interested in doing so should definitely read American Dreams. For anyone else, the story is just too slight to stand on its own. Anyone looking to sink their teeth into a meaty comic without strings should read The Walking Dead, or better yet, something else by Faith Erin Hicks.